Managing the Wilds

Work continues on the new Coronado forest plan, despite controversy over how specific the plan should be

The majority of the more than 2 million bipedal creatures who roam the Coronado National Forest's 1.78 million acres every year are white male homo sapiens between the ages of 31 and 70. No wonder it always seems like I'm passing those same few guys up on the trails. Next time, say hello.

This and other nuggets of information can be found in the Coronado's new report, the draft "Integrated Need for Change," a major step in the forest's intricate, multi-year, $1.5-million campaign to update its forest plan.

The 23-page document identifies five "revision topics," general themes that, based on two rounds of public meetings last year, should be addressed in the plan, which federal law requires the Coronado to update every 15 to 20 years. The last full revision occurred in 1986. The forest is planning a third round of public meetings for October and November.

Many of the key topics identified are obvious, and were expected to be a part of the revision from the start--issues like the negative impact of illegal immigration and drug smuggling on the forest, which wasn't much of an issue in 1986. Other issues identified include the preservation of open space--a priority in Arizona only in the last decade or so--and the control, or lack thereof, of an increasing number of off-road vehicles haphazardly tearing through one of the most ecologically diverse natural areas in the world.

But there are also a few surprises, says forest planner Jennifer Ruyle, the Coronado's point person on the revision project. She said that, during the last two rounds of public meetings, she received a lot of comments on the somewhat softer issues of "collaboration and partnerships."

"It was very clear that the public wants more input," she says. "That was high on their lists; they said they wanted to get involved, that they want to see more boots on the ground, but knowing that's not always possible, they want us to leverage their enthusiasm." She's not sure how these priorities are going to fit into the plan itself, but she admits that "we couldn't ignore them."

More demographic information than ever is being taken into account in this round of revisions, Ruyle said (hence the news about all those white males). Extreme growth on the forest's borders during the last few decades has made knowing who all these people are and what they want from the forest integral to any future planning.

Many didn't expect the plan revision to get this far. As was reported in the Tucson Weekly ("Forest Foul-Up," Currents, May 24), the process hit a snag when a federal judge enjoined the guiding rules the Forest Service was using for the planning, agreeing with several environmental groups that the so-called "2005 Planning Rule" didn't allow for the kind of specifics a forest plan should have. Under the 2005 rule, forest plans are not required to include specific wildlife-protection guidelines and give managers greater authority to make decisions regarding everything from logging to mining on the federal land.

Despite the enjoinment, work on the revision is going forward, and Ruyle said she expects a decision on the rule in February. The controversy has set back the plan's expected completion date to sometime in 2009. Most involved expect that the Forest Service will be told to return to the 1982 planning rule, which requires more specific information than the newer planning rules--and potentially could result in lengthy environmental impact statements on site-specific plans.

"This was all a setback to us," Ruyle said. "But it's one of those things that happens in this business. Some groups are looking for more regulation in the forest plan; some people feel very strongly that environmental impact statements especially are necessary for this kind of process. But our position is that this is a strategic-planning document."

When the Forest Service has completed EIS processes for forest plan elements in the past, Ruyle said, "what we've ended up with is a kind of a meaningless document, but one that cost a whole lot of money to produce. If we ended up with the 1982 rule, we would have to jump through some hoops and do a lot more work, and I'm not sure it would meaningful."

But a "meaningless document" is exactly what David Hodges fears the new forest plan will be if it doesn't include the kind of specifics required under the 1982 planning rule.

Hodges is policy director for Sky Island Alliance and coordinator of the Coronado Planning Partnership, a coalition of about 40 different groups that's following the process and has a presence at every meeting. Hodges has been following the Forest Service for 20 years, and while he's generally pleased with the findings and priorities in the new report, Hodges and his group are hoping that a February decision will bring more specificity to the process.

"The ('Integrated Need for Change') recognizes how big a problem ATVs and other off-road vehicles are on the forest," Hodges said. "That's one of the things we've been concerned about quite a bit. The vast majority of forest users go there for quiet--ATV users make up only about 4 to 8 percent of total usage, but their impact is disproportionately high, especially when it comes to the illegal wildcat trails that they seem to be unable to prevent themselves from making."

Still, as encouraged as he is, he believes that a forest plan should be specific, not just a visionary mission statement. But when you start getting into specifics, on-the-ground, site-by-site analysis and planning, the EIS necessarily rears its complex head.

"The 1982 planning guidelines have specific standards and guidelines, and require the forest to say whether they are meeting objectives," Hodges explained. Without those standards and guidelines, the final plan would be open to interpretation by people who may not have the forest's best interest in mind.

"To say that this is a 'vision plan'--I wonder, down the road, what does it really mean, when all is said and done? "

Yet the planning goes on, and both Ruyle and Hodges said they hope the public attends upcoming workshops in droves.

"We are trying to get a clear picture of the people's vision for the forest," Ruyle said. "We have identified these five problem areas, and we are hoping people can tell us what it would be like if the problems were fixed. What should we manage toward?"

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly